Unilateral Referendum in Contested Oil Producing Abyei Region Overwhelmingly in Favor of Joining South Sudan

Andrew McGregor

October 31, 2013

Ngok Dinka residents of the oil-rich but disputed border territory of Abyei have voted by a margin of more than 99% to join the Bahr al-Ghazal region of South Sudan rather than the South Kordofan region of Sudan in a three-day vote (October 27-29) that defied many predictions by being carried out peacefully and without major disturbances despite being boycotted by the other main ethnic group in the region, the Arab Missiriya tribe. Only 12 voters were reported to have cast a vote to join Sudan in a process to which foreign media were granted full access in order to verify transparency , though no international observers were present (Sudan Tribune, October 31).

(Africa Confidential)

Many Ngok Dinka displaced by attacks by the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) in May 2008 and May 2011 were reported to have returned home to take part in the vote (Reuters, October 31). The borders of Abyei were redrawn by an international arbitration tribunal in 2009 to neither side’s satisfaction, though the most productive oil fields (the Heglig zone) were separated from a diminished Abyei and attached to Sudan’s South Kordofan province (RFI, July 22, 2009).

The semi-nomadic Missiriya spend much of the year in the Sudanese province of South Kordofan, but rely on the 10,000 square kilometer region of Abyei for dry-season grazing for their herds as part of a centuries-old migratory pattern. The Missiriya include a core of well-armed and experienced fighters who are determined not to allow new borders to interfere with their traditional way of life. Missiriya tribal leader Mukhtar Babo Nimr described the vote as “an illegal process,” adding that “We in the Missiriya tribe are committed to the official position of the Sudanese government…Abyei is a northern land that belongs to Sudan and we are on it and will continue to live there because it is our land” (Reuters, October 31). The Missiriya have promised to hold their own referendum in response to the vote by the Ngok Dinka (Sudan Tribune, October 31). Missiriya militias known as Murahileen have been armed and sponsored by Khartoum since the 1970s, initially as a means of applying pressure on South Sudanese separatists by attacking agricultural communities along the north-south border.

The vote was not supported by either Khartoum or Juba, nor was it recognized by any element of the international community. The vote was initially backed by the African Union, which later withdrew its support over complaints of “obstruction” by Khartoum, which opposed the vote (Reuters, October 29). The referendum was intended to replace a scheduled 2011 vote on Abyei’s future allegiance meant to be coincidental to South Sudan’s vote on independence that was cancelled due to unrest in the region, questions over who would be allowed to vote and tensions between Juba and Khartoum. 65,000 Ngok Dinka were registered for the vote, which was non-binding. The vote was carried out by the Abyei Referendum High Committee.

Abyei’s location in the Muglad Basin once made it one of Sudan’s most productive regions for high-quality oil production, but reserves are now in decline due to intensive production in the 1990s.  The dispute over Abyei’s status dates to 1905, when the Anglo-Egyptian administration of Sudan transferred the “area of the nine Ngok Dinka chieftains” from the southern Bahr al-Ghazal province to the northern province of South Kordofan. Relations between the Ngok Dinka and the Missiriya were amicable until the outbreak of the 1956-1972 North-South civil war, when the Ngok Dinka sided largely with the southern Anyanya separatist movement. When the conflict resumed in 1983, the Ngok Dinka again sided with the Southern opposition, this time in the form of the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army/Movement (SPLA/M).

Security in Abyei is currently provided by the United Nations Interim Security Force for Abyei (UNIFSA), a mostly Ethiopian contingent of over 5300 troops commanded by Ethiopian Major General Yohannes Gebremeskel Tesfamariam. [1] The force was established by UN Security Council resolution 1990 on June 27, 2011 in response to widespread violence in the region.

Though the results of the unilateral referendum are entirely symbolic, they may help provide the impetus necessary to attract the interest of the UN Security Council in working out a final solution for the disputed territory.


1. For UNIFSA, see http://www.un.org/en/peacekeeping/missions/unisfa/

Sudanese President Declares South Sudan’s Oil Will Never Pass Through Sudan Again

Andrew McGregor

June 27, 2013

Only three months after a long and bitter dispute over South Sudanese oil flows through Sudan was resolved, the pipeline from the South is in danger of being cut off once again, to the mutual disadvantage of both states. The earlier dispute, which saw oil flows from South Sudan suspended for 16 months, was based on a dispute over pipeline fees. Now political considerations have come to the fore, with Khartoum demanding that South Sudan stop its alleged support of forces belonging to the rebel Sudanese Revolutionary Front (SRF) in the Darfur, Kordofan and Blue Nile regions.  Khartoum’s decision comes at a time when it has been unsettled by rebel advances in North Kordofan province that could eventually open the road to a strike on the capital itself.

South Sudan PipelineRoute of Proposed New Pipeline (ENR)

In a June 8 rally in Khartoum, Bashir announced he had told his oil minister to “direct oil pipelines to close the pipeline and after that, let [South Sudan] take [the oil] via Kenya or Djibouti or wherever they want to take it… The oil of South Sudan will not pass through Sudan ever again” (Sudan Tribune, June 17). The Sudanese government has said the pipeline must be shut down in a gradual 60-day process and that all oil within the pipeline are already in Port Sudan will be shipped out as usual (Sudan Tribune, June 15). The affected oil shipments belong to the China National Petroleum Corporation, India’s ONCG Videsh and Malaysia’s Petronas.

Even if the current dispute was resolved quickly (which looks unlikely), it will still have the result of encouraging plans to develop a new pipeline to carry South Sudan’s oil to Djibouti or Kenya’s Lamu Port instead of Port Sudan. The planned pipeline to Lamu Port would be joined by another new line from Uganda, which has been determined to have a commercially viable three billion drums of oil (Daily Nation [Nairobi], June 18).

However, for the pipeline to Lamu Port to become a reality, new oil discoveries are needed in South Sudan. Most of these hopes are centered on potential discoveries in the massive but promising Jonglei B Bloc that was formerly a concession of French oil firm Total. The B Bloc has now been divided into three parts, with Total joining in a partnership with U.S. Exxon Mobil and Kuwait’s Kufpec in at least two of these blocs (Reuters, June 4). Unfortunately, eastern Jonglei is the home of the Yau Yau rebellion, an obstinate challenge to South Sudan’s success that Juba believes is supplied and organized by Khartoum (for rebellion leader David Yau Yau, see https://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=278 ).  South Sudan president Salva Kiir Mayardit is reported to have discussed construction of the new pipeline with the Toyota Corporation of Japan during a visit to that country (al-Sharq al-Awsat, June 20).

Nafi Ali Nafi 2Sudanese Presidential Advisor Nafi Ali Nafi (Sudan Tribune)

The previous dispute over oil transfers was solved by a Cooperation Agreement signed in September, 2012 and implemented in March that covered oil and other issues, such as border security, citizenship, trade, banking and even the creation of a buffer zone between the two nations. Following Khartoum’s decision to suspend the Cooperation Agreement with South Sudan, Washington postponed an already controversial visit to the U.S. capital from Sudanese presidential adviser Nafi Ali Nafi, one of the most powerful men in the regime and a possible future presidential candidate, but also a figure many believe should be charged by the International Criminal Court for his role in various human rights abuses (al-Sanafah [Khartoum], June 19).

Efforts to reconcile the two Sudans have been led by former South African president Thabo Mbeki, currently chairman of the African Union High-Level Implementation Panel. China, which stands to lose a major source of oil over the tensions between Khartoum and Juba, has joined the AU in seeking a resolution to the dispute. Khartoum has indicated its acceptance of an African Union proposal that would see the re-implementation of the cooperation agreement once the South Sudanese army was removed from the demilitarized zone between the two nations, but with both Khartoum and Juba still accusing the other of maintaining proxy forces within their respective territories, there are still important issues to be resolved if South Sudanese oil is to continue being pumped to Port Sudan after the two-month warning period ends in early August. South Sudan vice-president Riek Machar has been assigned to visit Khartoum to discuss means of resolving this latest crisis, but a date for the visit has yet to be set (al-Sahafah [Khartoum], June 16; al-Sharq al-Awsat, June 20).

South Sudan’s Foreign Minister, Nhial Deng Nhial, insists that his government is ready to fully implement all the conditions of the Cooperation Agreement: “The Republic of South Sudan does not support rebels fighting Khartoum. It is in our interest not to destabilize the government of Sudan” (Sudan Tribune, June 23). Deng Alor, minister of cabinet affairs of South Sudan, remarked: “We do not want to enter into a military confrontation with Khartoum; not owing to weakness, but in order to maintain peace and its achievements… However, this does not prevent us from exercising our right to self-defense” (al-Sharq al-Awsat, June 20).

On June 20, the Khartoum government announced sweeping changes to the military leadership, including the top positions in the army, air force, navy and intelligence service. The new chief-of-staff is Lieutenant General Mustafa Osman Obeid Salim, who succeeds Colonel General Ismat Abd al-Rahman. While government sources described the replacement of 15 senior officers as routine, it is widely believed the broad changes in the command structure reflected a lack of confidence in the existing commanders, who were unable to prevent the Sudanese Revolutionary Front from taking the town of Abu Kershola in South Kordofan and attacking the North Kordofan town of Um Rawaba in a lightly-resisted spring offensive that embarrassed government leaders.  The SRF even fired four shells on a military airbase outside the North Kordofan capital of Kadugli on June 14, though the shells actually fell on part of the facility used by the United Nations Interim Security Force for Abyei (UNISFA), killing one Ethiopian peacekeeper and wounding two others (Sudan Tribune, June 14; Akhir Lahzah [Khartoum], June 18).

Military developments in North Kordofan have clearly alarmed the regime in Khartoum, which has set up 27 checkpoints at entrance points to the capital to prevent the infiltration of SRF fighters (al-Sharq al-Awsat, June 20). Nafi Ali Nafi made an unusual public criticism of the army afterwards, saying its low combat capability meant it was struggling to deal with the rebels and was in need of new recruits. His remarks were taken poorly by the Army, whose spokesman Colonel al-Sawarmi Khalid Sa’ad proclaimed that “if it wasn’t for the Sudanese Army… these [rebel] movements would have now seized the city of Khartoum and the regime would have totally collapsed” (al-Sharq al-Awsat, June 20; Sudan Tribune, June 20). Nonetheless, the president’s adviser appears to have come out on top in this struggle – most of the officers newly appointed to command positions are believed to be Nafi loyalists. The widespread changes to Sudan’s military leadership also appear to have weeded out some senior officers whose loyalty was suspect after being charged and then pardoned by the president in connection with an alleged coup attempt last November. [1] Only a few of those detained remain behind bars, including Major General Salah Ahmed Abdalla and Lieutenant General Salah Abdallah Abu Digin (a.k.a. Salah Gosh),a former head of the National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS)  known for his political rivalry with Nafi Ali Nafi and his close cooperation with the CIA in counterterrorism matters.


  1. For the coup, see Andrew McGregor, “Sudanese Regime Begins to Unravel after Coup Reports and Rumors of Military Ties to Iran,” Aberfoyle International Security Special Report, January 7, 2012, https://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=141.

This article first appeared in the Jamestown Foundation Terrorism Monitor on June 27, 2013.

South Sudan’s Yau Yau Rebellion Creating Insecurity in Jonglei State

Andrew McGregor

September 13, 2012

Rebellions in remote regions of South Sudan continue to plague efforts to restore security in the new nation and further a disarmament process that is ironically being cited as one of the primary causes of the latest disturbance in South Sudan’s Jonglei State.  The so-called Yau Yau Rebellion, named for its leader, failed politician David Yau Yau, has brought many youth belonging to South Sudan’s Murle tribe into direct conflict with troops of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), the former rebel group that now forms the national army of South Sudan.

Murle 1David Yau Yau

A former theology student, Yau Yau was defeated by a SPLM candidate in the April 2010 elections. Rather than accept defeat, Yau Yau gathered disaffected youth of the Jonglei-based Murle tribe and launched an attack on Pibor in May, 2010, killing several SPLA soldiers. He continued to mount ambushes on SPLA troops and South Sudan wildlife rangers until 2011, when he agreed to a ceasefire. [1] During his reintegration with the SPLM government, Yau Yau received the usual reward for rebels who have given up their struggle—a general’s rank in the SPLA, despite Yau Yau’s utter lack of military experience.

The SPLA reported in April that Yau Yau had fled to Khartoum, presumably to obtain aid for a new rebellion from the government of Omar al-Bashir, which has been engaged in a proxy war with the South for several years (Sudan Tribune, April 8). Yau Yau has since enjoyed some success in fighting on his own turf in Pibor County (south-west Jonglei State). On August 23, Yau Yau’s men were joined by armed civilians in killing as many as 40 SPLA soldiers looking for the rebel leader in the Lekuangole Payam district of Pibor (Miraya FM [Juba], August 27; Upper Nile Times, August 27 ). In the aftermath of the attack, the commander of the SPLA’s Division 8, Major General Botros Bol Bol, vowed that “Yau Yau will die like [George] Athor… they will not escape from our hands,” while Governor Manyang said the army had been instructed to teach the rebels “a lesson they will never forget” (Sudan Tribune, August 28). [2] That lesson was postponed when Yau Yau’s men attacked SPLA troops again on August 30 (Sudan Tribune, August 30).

SPLA troops involved in disarming the Murle (who fought in pro-government militias against the SPLA during the civil war) have been accused of committing numerous rapes and using various methods of torture and coercion to get Murle tribesmen to reveal where their weapons are hidden during the disarmament campaign, though an SPLA spokesman described such reports as “lies” (Sudan Tribune, August 27, August 30; BBC, May 25).

However, Jonglei governor Kuol Manyang played down the possibility the violence was connected to SPLA excesses in the disarmament process: “It is not revenge, it is a rebellion.” The governor suggested that human rights violations amongst the Murle could be the work of “individuals” amongst the 8,000 SPLA soldiers deployed in the Pibor region (Sudan Tribune, August 27). Manyang has stated that Khartoum is the sole source of arms for Yau Yau’s forces and claims that helicopters are hidden in the bush that are used to resupply the rebels (Sudan Radio Service, August 31; Sudan Times, August 30).

Murle 2The Murle (Compass Media/Jeroen van Loon)

Most of the Murle live in the Upper Nile lowlands, though smaller groups live in the highlands of the Boma Plateau and across the border in southern Ethiopia, from whence they came in the 19th century. Their pastoral lifestyle has often brought them into conflict with other pastoralists in South Sudan over scarce resources. There are also residual tensions from the civil war, in which many Murle fought against the SPLA in Major General Ismail Konyi’s pro-Khartoum Pibor Defense Forces (South Sudan News Agency, March 18). Cattle-raiding is endemic amongst the tribes of Jonglei State and has grown worse with the proliferation of automatic weapons during the civil war, but it is the Murle proclivity for abducting hundreds of children annually that has enraged their neighbors. The cause of the abductions appears to be widespread infertility amongst the Murle, which is commonly believed to be caused by an epidemic of syphilis, though very little serious research has been carried out to discover the precise reasons for the problem, which appears to be long-standing—some Nuer claim the abductions began in the 17th century (Bor Globe, April 9; South Sudan News Agency, January 5).

In late December, 2011, a Nuer militia of over 6,000 men known as the Nuer White Army (NWA) launched “Operation Ending Murle Abductions” with the assistance of some 900 Twic-Dinka youth eager to end the pattern of Murle child-abductions and who were credited with providing the intelligence behind the successful rescue of 35 abductees. [3]

A NWA statement issued during the January campaign against the Murle offered a novel solution to the Murle infertility problem:

[The] Murle cannot increase their population by abducting Nuer, Anuak and Dinka’s children. If Murle’s women have fertility problem, the Nuer and Dinka are willing to accept intermarriage with Murle. The Dinka, Nuer and Murle’s chiefs can sit down and talk about intermarriage to assist our Murle brothers to increase their population if their women are not procreating. The chiefs can decide the number of cattle a Murle man should pay as dowries to marry a Dinka or Nuer girl (South Sudan News Agency, January 5).

The NWA was formed by Riek Machar (current vice-president of South Sudan) during the 1991 split within the SPLA, which saw many Nuer under Machar’s command join Khartoum’s loyalists in South Sudan in reaction to perceived Dinka dominance of the independence movement. The NWA, composed largely of young Lou Nuer civilians, used their official sanction to turn their arms against traditional regional enemies, such as the Bor Dinka and the Murle. Machar found it difficult to disband the youth after the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) of 2005. The battle-hardened veterans of the SPLA were more persuasive, slaughtering over a hundred of the NWA in May, 2005, bringing a temporary halt to the movement’s activities. [4]

The NWA today reject Riek Machar as a Nuer leader and hold him responsible for arming the Murle after siding with Khartoum in the civil war. The NWA operates outside the traditional tribal power structure, which has created friction with the community it purports to represent. In a statement released earlier this year, the NWA suggested the UN not waste its time talking to a “tiny minority, like chiefs, elders, pastors and politicians,” and further warned that if South Sudanese President Salva Kiir “wants to avoid what happened to Muammar Qaddafi, he should not mess with the Nuer White Army.”  [5]

One of the organizers of the December-January raids on the Murle was Dak Kueth, a Lou Nuer “magician” who headed for the Ethiopian border with 200 armed men rather than submit to SPLA disarmament, committing further attacks on the way. In late June, Dak Kueth’s group became trapped between SPLA forces and Ethiopian troops, forcing the entire group to surrender to the Ethiopians. Some of those detained were Ethiopian nationals from the Nuer community of western Ethiopia’s Gambela district, but Dak Kueth and the Sudanese Nuer were turned over to the SPLA (Sudan Tribune, April 17; June 27).

Led by Lieutenant General Kuol Deim Kuol, the disarmament campaign that began in March has been hampered by difficult terrain, a lack of roads and Murle fears that they will be defenseless in the face of further attacks from the Nuer and Dinka (Sudan Tribune, April 17). As many as 100,000 people remain displaced after the tribal clashes of December 2011 and January 2012, in which 1,000 to 3,000 people were killed.

This article first appeared in the September 13, 2012 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor

Border Clashes Shut Down Oil Production as the Two Sudans Prepare for New Round of War

Andrew McGregor

April 19, 2012

In response to South Sudan’s surprise occupation of its northern neighbor’s most productive oilfields, Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir announced on April 12 that South Sudan had “chosen the path of war” (Sudan Tribune, April 12).

Heglig MapWith the support of the United States, South Sudan declared its independence in July 2011 without having first reached an agreement with Khartoum on vital issues such as oil revenues, transfer fees and border demarcation. Juba’s occupation of the Heglig field goes well beyond applying pressure on Khartoum; it deprives its northern neighbor of revenues, foreign currency reserves and fuel. It also places an already unpopular regime in a corner from which it may feel it necessary to return to a state of war for its own survival. Khartoum might be able to buy peace with Juba and the return of Heglig by looking favorably on Southern claims in other border disputes, but this would be a humiliating response by a military/Islamist regime that cannot afford to show any weakness. In the meantime, the Sudanese pound is rapidly dropping in real value and lineups for petroleum products are growing longer by the day.  However, South Sudan, which possesses no refineries, is also suffering a rapid decline in the value of its currency and is running short of hard-currency reserves needed to purchase refined petroleum products, much of these reserves having already been spent on Juba’s massive re-armament program and expansion of its military.

Chinese-made APCs in Mombasa Port awaiting shipment to South Sudan

The South Sudan maintains that Heglig was part of the southern region according to administrative divisions existing at the time of independence in 1956 and now appears to be rejecting a 2009 ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague that Heglig lies inside the northern Sudan rather than the South. The Heglig oil fields, which are in gradual decline but still provide over half of Sudan’s remaining oil production, are operated by the Greater Nile Petroleum Operating Co. (GNPOC), a Chinese, Malaysian, Indian and Sudanese consortium. China, a major arms supplier for Khartoum, is reported to be shipping arms and other equipment to South Sudan through the Kenyan port of Mombasa (Nairobi Star, April 8).

The occupation of Heglig is the latest stage in a growing battle over Sudan’s oil wealth. Khartoum lost roughly 75%of its oil production with the separation of the South Sudan, where most of the oil is found. However, the only outlet for this oil is via pipeline through the north to Port Sudan, which gave Khartoum the idea of replacing its lost revenues by charging transfer fees of $36 per barrel rather than the going international rate of $1 per barrel as well as siphoning off significant amounts of southern oil for its own use. Juba turned off the taps in January in protest even though oil exports account for 98% of South Sudan’s budget (see Terrorism Monitor, March 22). Khartoum has not backed down on the transfer fees, so Juba has apparently decided that if South Sudan must do without oil, so must Sudan.

South Sudan’s information minister has indicated a withdrawal of Khartoum’s forces from the disputed Abyei region would be among the conditions required for a South Sudanese pullout from Heglig (al-Jazeera, April 12; for Abyei see Terrorism Monitor Brief, May 27, 2011). On March 15, South Sudan President Salva Kiir told an audience in Wau that border demarcation cannot begin until Khartoum acknowledges the Abyei region belongs to South Sudan. [1] President Kiir has been unresponsive to international pleas to pull his forces back, complaining that he has been unable to sleep because of telephone calls from international leaders: “The UN secretary-general [called] yesterday; he gave me an order… to immediately withdraw from Heglig. I said, “I’m not under your command” (al-Jazeera, April 12; Sudan Tribune, April 12).

The Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) maintains their advance into Heglig came in response to an incursion into the oilfields of South Sudan’s Unity State with two brigades of Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) regulars, 16 tanks and various pro-Khartoum militias. The SAF were defeated by the SPLA’s 4th Division under General James Gatduel Gatluak and pursued as far as Heglig, where they have remained (Sudan Tribune, April 11). Sudanese forces are reported to be moving on Heglig gradually, with SAF spokesmen citing delays caused by mines laid by South Sudanese troops (Sudan Tribune, April 15).  

Sudan’s military maintains that the SPLA were joined in the April 10 attack on Heglig by fighters belonging to Darfur’s Justice and Equality Movement (JEM). An AFP reporter said they had observed dead bodies in Heglig bearing JEM insignia and two destroyed land cruisers with JEM emblems. JEM denied the allegations, providing the unlikely suggestion that the SAF may have dressed their own dead in JEM uniforms (AFP, March 28). In June, 2011 the Darfur-based rebels claimed to have carried out a long-distance raid on the Heglig Airport.

The SPLA claims to have shot down one of Khartoum’s Russian-built Mig-29 fighter jets during an April 6 air raid in the Heglig region, though this was denied by an SAF spokesman (al-Jazeera, April 6). According to South Sudanese intelligence and other sources, Mig-29 air strikes targeted a strategic bridge in Abiem-nhom County in Unity State, a target at Ajakkuac in Warrap State and the main bridge in Bentiu (capital of Unity State), killing five people and wounding five others (Sudan Tribune, April 11; April 14; April 15). The SPLA does not yet possess a combat-capable air force, but is believed to have plans to develop an air arm for their military.

Sudan’s defense minister, Abd al-Rahim Muhammad Hussein, says the SPLA offensive is part of a cooperative effort with components of the recently formed Sudan Revolutionary Front (SRF) to occupy Heglig and the South Kordofan capital of Kadugli (Sudan Tribune, April 11; for the SRF, see Terrorism Monitor, November 11, 2011). The SRF includes JEM and the SPLA-North, which operates in Sudan’s South Kordofan and Blue Nile States. Hussein said SPLA-North forces in South Kordofan consist of 22 battalions of 500 men each, while JEM and Darfur’s Sudan Liberation Movement – Minni Minnawi (SLM-MM) have a combined 125 Land Cruisers across the South Sudan border in Bahr al-Ghazal preparing to launch cross-border attacks (Sudan Tribune, April 11). While the deployment of large numbers of Darfur rebels in the border region of South Sudan cannot be confirmed, it is consistent with Khartoum’s claims of greater cooperation between the rebels and the SPLA over the last year. If JEM actually was involved in the attack on Heglig, it would be the first sign that the SRF alliance was becoming a military reality with the support of Juba.


1. “The Crisis in Abyei,” The Sudan Human Security Baseline Assessment Project, Small Arms Survey, March 28, 2012, http://www.smallarmssurveysudan.org/facts-figures-abyei.php

This article was first published in the April 19, 2012 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.

Struggle between North and South Sudan Increasingly Tied to Palestinian-Israeli Conflict

Andrew McGregor

January 12, 2012

In late December, South Sudan president Salva Kiir made a state visit to Israel, meeting with President Shimon Peres, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. The visit alarmed many in the traditional Khartoum power structure, including former prime minister Sadiq al-Mahdi, who described the visit as “devilish” and part of an Israeli effort to find new allies after alienating Turkey and losing the cooperation of the Mubarak regime in Egypt (Sudan Vision, December 26, 2011).

Salva Kiir Mayardit 2President Salva Kiir Mayardit

A spokesman for the Sudanese Foreign Ministry said the government was studying the national security implications of Kiir’s visit to Israel, citing Israel’s leading role in an international campaign to “foment” the conflict in Darfur (Sudan Tribune, December 22, 2011).

Also on the agenda was the fate of an estimated 15,000 Sudanese refugees in Israel, many of them Muslims from Darfur and Christians from the South Sudan that the Israeli government would like to return in order to preserve the Jewish character of Israel. Prime Minister Netanyahu likened the arrival of these refugees to “a nationwide plague – in the economy, society, homeland security. There is no obligation to take in illegal infiltrators. This is no longer a matter of making a decision – it’s a necessity, an imperative… Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state must be secured” (YNet News, December 27, 2011).

After Kiir’s visit, Israel announced it would send a delegation to South Sudan to investigate means of assisting the new nation. Kiir is reported to have asked for greater cooperation in the fields of technology, agriculture and water development (DPA/Reuters, December 20).

Rolf Steiner in Biafra

Israel’s interaction with South Sudan goes back to the Anyanya rebellion of the 1960s, when it provided covert training and arms supplies to Southern guerrillas in an effort to open a new front against Khartoum and prevent the deployment of Sudanese troops along the Suez Canal as part of the Arab alliance against Israel. German mercenary Rolf Steiner, fresh from exploits in the Congo and Biafra, attempted to join the Anyanya forces, but was forced to join another separatist faction after what he believed were Israeli objections to his service with Anyanya based on his experience as a teenaged Jungvolk commander in Nazi Germany in 1943-44. [1]

Right on the heels of the South Sudan president’s visit to Jerusalem came the first official visit to Sudan by the Hamas prime minister of Gaza, Ismail Haniya. After arriving in Khartoum on December 27, the Hamas leader predicted the “Arab Spring” would eventually bring victory to the Palestinian resistance and thanked the Sudanese people for their support (Sudan Vision, December 31, 2011).

Haniya was joined in Khartoum by Khalid Mesha’al, the exiled Hamas leader, and Hamas co-founder Mahmoud Zahar as the delegation sought financial support for its reconstruction following the 2008 Israeli attack on the territory as well as political support for recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of the Palestinian state (AFP, December 29). Mesha’al was reported as warning the Sudanese president that Israeli authorities were trying to ethnically cleanse Jerusalem by “Judaizing” the city (Elnashra [Beirut], December 29, 2011; Jerusalem Post, December 30, 2011).

Meanwhile, both the Sudanese and Israeli press have been full of unverified stories alleging Israeli military incursions and airstrikes in the Red Sea coast region of Sudan. In an attack said to have occurred in November, Israeli aircraft were reported to have struck two vehicles in the Wadi al-Allaqi area of northern Sudan near the disputed Hala’ib Triangle region along the Sudanese-Egyptian border (Haaretz, December 25, 2011; December 27, 2011). A second incursion was reported by Sudanese media to have taken place on December 15, involving Israeli Apache attack helicopters landing near a Sudanese radar installation and even Israeli submarines operating off the Sudanese Red Sea coast (YNet News, December 26, 2011). Sudanese officials denied reports that Israeli aircraft had carried out strikes on targets in eastern Sudan on December 18 and 22 (al-Bawaba, December 25, 2011).  A pro-government daily reported that the men killed in a convoy of six Toyota Land Cruisers attacked by Israeli aircraft on December 18 were “gold prospectors”  (Alintibaha [Khartoum], December 24, 2011).

Most of the reports display some confusion over the actual dates and some apparently different reports may refer to the same incident. Colonel Sawarmi Khalid Sa’ad, a spokesman for the Sudanese Army, was adamant that no trace of an aerial incursion had been detected by Sudanese radar and air defense systems (Haaretz, December 25)

Israeli claims that Iran was shipping arms through Sudan and overland through Egypt to Gaza emerged in 2009 just prior to an earlier series of mysterious airstrikes in Sudan’s Red Sea coast region (Jerusalem Post, March 3, 2009).


  1. Scopas S. Poggo: “Politics of Liberation in the Southern Sudan, 1967-1972: The Role of Israel, African Heads of State, and Foreign Mercenaries,” The Uganda Journal, Vol. 47, November 2001, pp. 34-48; Rolf Steiner: The Last Adventurer, Boston, 1978, pp. 178-210; Edgar O’Ballance: The Secret War in the Sudan 1955-1972, London, 1977, pp. 126-130.

This article first appeared in the January 12, 2012 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.

Egypt’s Gama’a al-Islamiya and the War in South Sudan

Andrew McGregor

December 9, 2011

In a surprising statement, a leading member of Egypt’s Gama’a al-Islamiya (GI) has revealed members of the militant group had been sent to fight alongside government forces against South Sudanese rebels during the 1983-2005 Sudanese Civil War. The revelation was made by Dr. Najih Ibrahim, a founding member of the movement (al-Rai [Kuwait], November 16).

PDF KhartoumPopular Defense Forces Rally in Khartoum

In the 1990s, Khartoum’s civil war with rebel forces in the South Sudan was given a religious character when the regime declared it a jihad, partly as a means of inspiring, and later enforcing, recruitment to the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) or the lightly-armed Popular Defense Forces (PDF), which was armed with rifles and Qurans in an unsuccessful effort to destroy the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), the most powerful rebel movement in the South Sudan. It was likely during Khartoum’s jihad against what it described as the “communist, tribal and atheist/Christian” SPLA that GI fighters joined the conflict, most probably in the ranks of the PDF, which suffered enormous losses fighting the veteran guerrilla forces of the SPLA on their own turf. Lately, however, there are fears that Khartoum is reviving the rhetoric of jihad to support its offensives against rebels in South Kordofan and the Blue Nile Province (Sudan Tribune, November 1).

The Alexandria-based Islamist ideologue said that GI’s “participation [in the civil war] was a huge mistake that led to what is Sudan’s fate now… The Sudanese regime focused its efforts on Islamizing the south and the Egyptian Islamists considered their participation in the war [was for the cause of] safeguarding Islam.”

From 1992 to 1997, al-Gama’a al-Islamiya waged a pitched war against the Egyptian state, its institutions and its financial underpinnings.  Some 1,200 people died as the group unleashed a wave of assassinations, mass murders of tourists and back-street battles with security forces.  However, the movement went too far in November 1997 when it massacred 58 foreign tourists and four Egyptians in a brutal attack at the Temple of Hatshepsut near Luxor. With popular support fizzling away and security forces successful in imprisoning many of the movement’s members, most of the members of the GI agreed to renounce violence, leading to the later release of some 2,000 Islamists from prison. However, some members, including Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, denounced the deal, and fled to Yemen and Afghanistan. Further renunciations of violence by those group members left in prison eventually led to the release of Najih Ibrahim in 2006 after serving 24 years.

The GI’s newly-formed political wing, Hizb al-Bena’a wa’l-Tanmia (Building and Development Party), ran a slate of candidates in the Egyptian parliamentary election after a court overturned a ban on the formation of a political party by the GI (Ahram Online, June 20; al-Masry al-Youm, September 20; MENA, October 10).

A member of GI’s Shura Council, Najih Ibrahim resigned from the council in March, along with Karam Zohid, reportedly as a result of differences that arose within the movement after the release of Colonel Abboud al-Zumar and his cousin Tarek al-Zumar, the GI founder who was imprisoned for three decades for his role in the assassination of President Anwar al-Sadat (Ahram Online, March 29).

Both before and after his release from prison, Ibrahim has been a major proponent of the “Revisions” produced by GI and other Islamist militant groups in Egypt. According to Ibrahim, these reassessments of the political use of violence “have revealed the major Islamic jurisprudential errors that al-Qaeda has made, especially with regard to the rulings and the pre-conditions of jihad” (al-Shorfa [Cairo], August 2). Though he regrets the slow pace with which the “Revisions” are penetrating extremist youth circles in Egypt, Ibrahim maintains that there is a major difference between GI and al-Qaeda: “Their aim is jihad, and our aim is Islam” (al-Sharq al-Awsat, August 14).

This article first appeared in the December 9, 2011 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor